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Transylvania Travel Diary – of Gypsies, Vampires and the Beginnings of a Fabrique

July 9, 2019
bradspurgeon

Garlic in Transylvanian wood shed Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Garlic in Transylvanian woodshed. Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

TALMACIU, Romania

Tuesday, 2 July:

2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.

10:30 AM:  Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.

11:00 AM:  Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.

1:00 PM:  Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).

7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection.  Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.

Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.

8:30 PM:  Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin.  First had a local white, then had a local red.  Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement.  Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.

Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country.  Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris.  Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.

Wednesday:

10:37 AM:  Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.

12:30 PM:  Met at the airport by driver of the Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble – who is in fact not a driver but is the lighting man for the Fabrique.  Drive for three hours plus lunch break to Talmaciu and the Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble.

4:30 PM:  Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies.  Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy.  Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).

7:00 PM:  Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things.  Learn much about what it was to live under communism.  Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom.  Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.

12:30 AM:  Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians.  Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.

2:00 AM:  Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires.  (And copious mosquitoes present.)

Thursday:

11:00 AM:  Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.

2:00 PM:  Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county.  Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles.  Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it.  (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz):  “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)

Transylvania Flower Shop in Sibiu Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Transylvania Flower Shop in Sibiu Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

3:00 PM:   Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists.  Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros.  Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros.  In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu.  Has guitar on back.  After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street.  Says he owns 250 guitars.  Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.”  Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.

3:30 PM:  Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again.  Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros.  Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not.  But knows others.

4:00 PM:  Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square.  Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none.   Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame.  Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better.  Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.

Goanna Lizards at FREE Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Goanna Lizards at FREE Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

5:30 PM:  Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host.  Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu.  Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress.  We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride.  In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania.  My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon.  He knows my name and is surprised.  Nice coincidence.

7:00 PM:  Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor.  Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris.  Nice coincidence.  No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators:  Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia.  (See photo.)  Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.

00:00 PM:  Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join.  I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.

Friday:

8:15 AM:  Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE.  Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.

Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary

Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary


9:00 AM:  Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory.   Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds.  Rundown after years without use.   Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies.  No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)

6:00 PM:  Workshop ends.  Shower, drink beer, seek dinner.

8:30 PM:  Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar.  Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music.  Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind.  No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies.  Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them.  Makes me want to quit.  (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)

Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater

Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater

10:00 PM:  Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music.  No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.

10:30 PM:  Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies.  Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping.  Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians.  So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.

00:00 PM:  Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host.  Host agreed it must have been vampire bat.  Fall asleep anyway, no problems.

Saturday:

8:15 AM:  Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains.  No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies.  Forget all troubles.  Do workshop, day ends well.  Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania.  Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world.  Always people.  Just people.  Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.

More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….

Exiting Talmaciu, but not really

Exiting Talmaciu, but not really

 

 

The 27th Hour: Women’s Rights with TAC Teatro and others, in front of the Pompidou Center in Paris

May 11, 2019
bradspurgeon

Playing to the 27th Hour at the Pompidou – Photo: © Morgana Stabile

PARIS – Performing in front of the Pompidou Center last Sunday afternoon, I had my first taste of dancing in a choreography.  I feel often like the world’s worst dancer, and although music is at the center of my life, I hate dancing.  I love to watch fine dancers, I just feel that I cannot do it.  But the choreography on Sunday was in the form mostly of a kind of boxing movement, and we were in a big enough group that I felt I could fade into the mass and not be seen!  So why did I do such a thing in front of the famous Pompidou Center – and in front of several cameras filming it?

Simple:  I, like the other 14 or 15 people who took part in the performance – called “La 27ème heure” – was invited by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, with which I have performed occasionally over the last couple of years.  Most importantly:  The event was designed to fight violence against women.  Another detail for why I participated was that in addition to the dance, I was told I could sing a song and play my guitar. So that gave me the inspiration to try the rest….

https://ellepi.zenfolio.com/blog/2019/5/27-me-heure

So it was that the 15 or so artists, musicians, dancers, actors, had been rehearsing for several weeks to put together this street action in defence of women’s rights.   Although it came months after the usual day of women’s rights, TAC Teatro, which is new in France after several years of success in Italy, has since 2011 put on events annually in support of women’s rights in the streets in Milan, and Ornella was keen to continue this TAC tradition in France, with no need to fit any particular anniversary date.

For this, she put together this team of performers not only from her own group of artists who take part in her TAC Teatro high-level Monday morning actors’ training sessions, but also joined forces with the prestigious ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de l’Acteur) based at the Cartoucherie in Paris, part of the Théâtre du Soleil group.

Choreography of the 27th Hour at the Pompidou – Photo: © Morgana Stabile

And so commenced several weeks of artistic creation for the Pompidou performance. Very early on the street action transformed from the kind of spectator participation event that TAC usually does into a performance in which the spectators were just that – invited to enter mentally into the performance, if not physically or vocally – and based on a choreography directed by Philippe Ducou, of ARTA. Ornella and the other artists proposed texts related to women’s rights.  

In addition to her experience in performing street actions for women’s rights at TAC Teatro, Ornella also has frequently staged the “Vagina Monologues” of the author Eve Ensler, in Italy, in Italian.  So several of the spoken texts came from excerpts of the “Vagina Monologues,” and were performed in several languages – French, English, Romanian, Vietnamese.

Ornella gave the event the name “La 27ème heure,” or “The 27th hour,” after an Italian study that showed that women have days that consisted of 26 hours – to take care of their jobs, their homes, their children, their husbands, etc. – where men need only 24 hours. The 27th hour is the hour that the women should have to be free and do as they please, to escape from their burden however they wish.

More choreography of the 27th Hour – Photo: © Morgana Stabile

In the end, we put on a 35-40 minute performance, ending with my singing of the 4 Non Blondes song “What’s Up!” as I circled the dancers and finally incited both the artists and the spectators to sing along.  Luca Papini, a Paris-based teacher, photographer and filmmaker – invited to the event by Ornella – made a 5-minute film of the performance and put it on his blog. It’s a fabulous tribute, and paints a beautiful picture of the event, so I am sharing the link to his blog item with the video.

Crazy Mad Wall of “Frontière Nord” at the Cartoucherie in Paris (France, not Texas)

February 17, 2019
bradspurgeon

Frontiere Nord

Frontiere Nord

PARIS – Could there be a better time to be staging plays about the building of walls to separate peoples? Could there be a better play to show to Donald Trump about the significance of building walls than “Frontière Nord,” a play written in 2007 by the Canadian playwright, Suzanne Lebeau? After all, it was written for children (of all ages). My guess, though, is that Trump would never understand the messages of this play, even in the brilliantly produced and performed version that we saw at the Théâtre du Soleil last night – to say nothing of Trump’s certain lack of understanding of the French language. But what was so fabulous about this production by the visiting Montpellier “Théâtre de l’Evidence,” is that it speaks to the spectator on so many different levels of language – music, dance, vocal expression, mime, and above all of intensity of emotion – that it is unlikely any spectator can see it without some sense of the stifling nature of building walls between societies.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about exactly what constitutes great theater, as I work on a personal theater project with TAC Teatro and its director Ornella Bonventre; and as I just had my story published in The Stage all about Paris’s 30 minuscule theatres of fewer than 50 seats; and after also seeing yet another piece in one of those theaters last week. The latter was the one-man-show enacting the “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol at the Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Some of these thoughts came to me during and after that production, directed by Stéphanie Slimani, with the actor Sylvain Zarli, attempting to adapt the classic Russian story to the stage using many of the elements of physical theater, including the introduction of another character beyond the human presence in the form of a dog puppet.

And it is this question of text vs. physical action that really preoccupies me. Most of the plays we see in Paris have to do with the text, and the talk the actors do around that text. The use of the physical to express another world is far too often an afterthought. This is where “Frontière Nord” director, and founder of the Théâtre de l’Evidence, Cécile Atlan, not just excels but in my view works like a virtuoso.

Puppet in Hand in Frontière Nord

Puppet in Hand in Frontière Nord


The play took place at the Cartoucherie in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, in an annex space of the famous Théâtre du Soleil, founded and run by Ariane Mnouchkine since 1970. (Actually, her company was founded in 1964, but they have been at the former munitions factory since 1970, in a wonderland of theater that if you have not yet been there, you have to go.) The atmosphere of the place is more than convivial: Food and drink is served before and after the show, the room probably seats a maximum of 100 or so people, and you can usually meet the artists afterwards for a drink. The show was also presented in conjunction with the ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de l’Acteur) research center at the Cartoucherie.

The live music is provided by the “Trio Zéphyr,” also based in Montpellier. Trio Zéphyr consists of three women string players – violin, viola and cello – who have been performing together for 19 years, and whose vocals are as sweet as their stringed instruments. The music comes from a rich assemblage of classical, modern and world music influences, and while it was composed by the trio for the trio – Marion Diaques, Claire Menguy and Delphine Chomel – and not for the play, Atlan worked specifically with pieces she chose or the trio suggested, adapting the performance and the pieces together.

Frontiere Nord at Théâtre du Soleil

Frontiere Nord at Théâtre du Soleil

The synthesis of the whole is just stunning, as the music adds brilliant drama to the already dramatic situation: The sudden appearance of a wall being built to separate people from the north and the south – and everywhere in between. It is a multiracial cast, too, by the way, with a total of eight actors – three men and five women – plus the trio of musicians, always present and visible off to the side, and sometimes involved practically physically in the action.

I cannot emphasize enough the quality of every element of this show: The actors are 100 percent in character the moment they arrive onstage, and the intensity of their performance is practically physically palpable throughout. The show was about 90 minutes long, and I was not bored for a moment. It was the third show I have now seen in the last year in this room – ranging from a fabulous amateur group’s production to the most recent show of Odin Teatret, called “The Tree” – and it kept me dreaming and asking questions and confronting ideas throughout (as had Odin’s show).

Trio Zéphyr

Trio Zéphyr


In many ways, I felt like I was watching a piece of ancient Greek theater, with the fabulous use of a chorus technique that continued throughout the play, and consisted of three or four characters speaking in unison much of the text. It was a highly stylized production, disconnected from everyday reality, that lifts the spectator into a world about as far from popular text-based theater as you can get.

The use of the puppet character was also beautifully done and added another dimension, and of course it is not surprising since early in her career, Lebeau had studied puppetry. Having started as an actress the 1960s, the Québecoise began devoting herself to writing plays in the mid-1970s and is now one of Canada’s most successful playwrights, especially as an export. I found it very interesting that at the same time as the main Théâtre du Soleil is putting on the production that became a huge controversy in Canada of the play “Kanata” – its Québecois director, Robert Lepage, was criticized for doing a play about the country’s indigenous people without using an indigenous actor (he is using Mnouchkine’s troupe, which personally makes sense to me, but that’s another story) – this other theater at the Cartoucherie is staging a play by another Quebecois that SHOULD be noticed by as many people as Kanata because of its very important subject matter in our day of Trumpian walls…but also, fittingly, in this day of the “Gilets Jaunes.”

“In this story,” said Atlan (in my translation from the French), “the building of a wall destined to create a border has dramatic consequences: Loss of jobs, uprooting of populations, isolation of families, suffering of children…the work exposes the question of freedom, and what humanity does with it. This wall leads to all of the barriers, both visible or invisible, that deprives humankind of its liberty.”

Theatre du Soleil Nefs

Theatre du Soleil Nefs


The play, appealing to almost all the senses – it also has fabulous costumes, by the way – and through a physical theater of an exceptional level, manages to communicate this message to the spectator in a powerful way that the written word or current events alone cannot come close to. That, I suppose, is precisely what makes great theater.

FRONTIÈRE NORD
at the Théâtre du Soleil, from 08 to 24 February 2019

Singing, Juggling, Ventriloquising, Clowning, Unicycling and Acting with Ornella and TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnières-sur-Seine

September 16, 2018
bradspurgeon

Brad and Ornella performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

Ornella and Brad performing for TAC Teatro in Asnières-sur-Seine

ASNIERES-SUR-SEINE, France – It is now a week ago, so no longer considered news, but I wanted to get down as a matter of record, the fabulous day I spent performing with Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro at the Forum des Associations of Asnères-sur-Seine. Founded in Milan, Italy, TAC Teatro now also has a base in France, in Asnières. And last weekend was the annual associations forum of this city just outside of Paris. That meant it was time for the local associations to show off what they do, and try to get new adherents. We had the whole stage to ourselves in front of the mayor’s building – the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall – and had great fun performing a little show as Ornella introduced TAC to the people of Asnières.

I was pleased to find myself on stage for the first time with the newly face-lifted Peter McCabe, my ventriloquist’s – well…o.k., sorry, Peter, I’ll just say, happy to be on stage with Peter after his recent facelift. Only problem was the facelift seems to have gone to Peter’s ego, and he announced to the people of Asnières that he was going to be the next president of the United States of America – saying that he could do a lot better than the current office holder.

We put together a short video of some highlights of our time on the stage, which I paste in here; and we were very proud to find a few days later – and this makes some sense of having not written about this before now – to find that we were picked up in the official city video of the event, very much near the place of honor, in the last 10 or so seconds of the video, at approximately the 2 minute 20 second point of the video. I am pasting that one in here too.

In any case, it was a fabulous day, and thank goodness the weather was great – as it has been all summer, but after the worst winter in recent memory in Paris (and Asnières). I hope Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro are selected to do this again (as not all of the associations were selected to show off their expertise).

Showing the Philosopher and other Tales at the Braziers Park Mini Indie Film Festival – in the Extraordinary Surroundings of an Intentional Community

August 26, 2018
bradspurgeon

Braziers Park

Braziers Park

BRAZIERS PARK – I just finished this afternoon showing my Colin Wilson interview film at a film festival in the barn of an ancient country home called Braziers Park in England, not far from Oxford. It was a beautiful fitting location for the first show of this film to a general public after 12 years of its making. I have so much to say about this whole fantastic weekend at this extraordinary faux Gothic former home to Ian Fleming – the author of James Bond – and to Marianne Faithfull, who spent some time of her childhood here and later brought her boyfriend, Mick Jagger to visit. It is more than 300 years old, but it is thanks to its more recent history that I ended up here. Since the 1950s the house has been the home to an “intentional community,” which is hosting this Mini Indie Film Festival this weekend.

That community is a small, nearly self-sufficient commune that acts as an educational institution, or to be more precise, a School of Integrative Social Research. So there’s nothing religious or sect-related in the place. It is apparently England’s oldest such community – or one of the oldest. I did managed to read a few unflattering things written about it (mostly to do with sex) by Marianne Faithfull in a book of hers about her time at the community, of which her parents were members, but it seems to have been changed since then, because I’ve seen nothing odd going on!

In fact, I was a little worried before I came about what I might find. But it has been a fantastically comfortable event and lifestyle. The house looks and feels like something you would see in a classic film – anything from an Agatha Christie story to Frankenstein, or, indeed, James Bond – with some 20 or so rooms for guests, a study, drawing room, large kitchen, very high ceilings, and a huge garden. There is also a campsite, and many acres of farmland, and even farm animals.

I was invited by one of the Colin Wilson film’s producers to show the film here as he, Michael Butterworth, was also showing a film about his life and publishing concern. In a nutshell: Michael Butterworth is one of the founders of the Savoy Books publishing company in Manchester, and he is also the publisher of my book, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Mike was also one of the producers of the interview film, along with Jay Jeff Jones, who was also the director, and a small production company in England called Excalibur Productions.

Savoy Books also had a hand in the film production, so it was the perfect marriage to join up the showing of the Colin Wilson interview with the film about Savoy Books, called “House on the Borderland,” which is by Clara Casian, and is about the publishers’ problems with the Manchester Police Department, a battle that went on for years decades ago. (Here is the long trailer I made of the interview film, the full length of which runs 1 hour 30 minutes.)

Showing the film in the barn was a delight, as was speaking with the spectators in that setting afterwards. In fact, the festival has been a wonderfully quirky and thought-provoking adventure with a huge cross-section of films, including horror films, documentaries, short art films, and others.

There was an excellent documentary called Power Trip, by Zoe Broughton and Paul O’Connor, about the battle against fracking in England.  It covers the trials of a real grassroots movement by citizens under threat of the ravages of this bizarre method of removing oil from the earth, in a battle fought by normal citizens, including many housewives, grandmothers, and people who would never otherwise have been involved in such a movement.

Ornella Bonventre in Ian Fleming Library at Braziers Park

Ornella Bonventre in Ian Fleming Library at Braziers Park

The horror film “The Fallow Field,” that I saw last night, scared the hell out of me. At first I was sorry I attended, as it played from 10 PM to 11:30 PM, and we need to get early to bed and have a full night of sleep here. I was sure this horribly frightening film would keep me awake all night with nightmares. In fact, perhaps it was the act of catharsis, but I slept much better last night than I have in days. Still, it was perhaps a help to have the leading actor in the room to talk to after the film. This way, we could confirm to ourselves that it was only a film. As this actor, Michael Dacre, proved to be harmless as a person in real life. Or rather, he seemed not at all to be the horrendous character he portrayed in the film, a character that ranks up there with the worst of them in my experience. Meaning, a horrendously evil, nasty, but at the same time human, murderer. Dacre plays a farmer who kills people and then buries them, only to dig them up again…. But I don’t want to give away the story. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent horror film that also forces us to ask questions about our own humanity. It transcends the genre. Made in 2009, it has apparently had a hard time breaking out, including spending a few years in its own fallow field.

The festival is also called a “Wider Community Weekend,” as it is a kind of “open doors” weekend to invite the community in for many other activities as well. Among those is the three-day workshop by Ornella Bonventre and her TAC Teatro, a workshop which she has called “The Flow Zone.” I have been attending her workshops, and helping out there was well, and learning a lot about the process of acting…and getting into the flow zone.

Ornella Bonventre directing her Flow Zone workshop at Braziers Park

Ornella Bonventre directing her Flow Zone workshop at Braziers Park

The festival continues tomorrow, so I may well post again on the subject. Oh, I should explain a little more about how this was the childhood home of Ian Fleming at the turn of last century, so there is a direct link to the James Bond novels somewhere. And there is an Ian Fleming library within the house. I have barely begun to explore all of the nooks and crannies, and somehow I feel I will leave the place without doing so, as there are so many activities that there is barely any time available to lie about. But this only gives me another reason to hope to return next year – maybe to show my open mic film…!

Oh dear, and how could I almost forget to mention that last night, in fitting with my usual adventures and this blog, they held an open mic in the drawing room – complete with a mic and a little amp. I had my guitar and played a couple of songs, Ornella did a bit of the song from her workshop – with everyone joining in – and many others did readings of prose – including Dacre reading something from Jack London – and Michael Butterworth reading some of his brilliant short poems. I was very touched also by a regular denizen of Braziers Park who sang a song that he said he learned here in 1961 or 1962. The beat goes on!

ANOTHER NOT REVIEW: A Physical (Handicap) Theater – at the Festival Future Composé and the Williams Syndrome Opening Piece

June 11, 2018
bradspurgeon

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N'est Toi.

Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel in Si Ce N’est Toi.

PARIS – If theater is about emotion, intellect and the physical world, then there is clearly a powerful formula to be harvested from the approach that is behind the festival called “Futur Composé” – running in several theaters and institutions around Paris from 8 June to 1 July – the opening play of which I attended on Friday at Le Carré du Temple. “Si Ce N’est Toi,” is a very personal piece by Marion Coutarel, inspired by her brother’s diagnosis in his 40s of Williams Syndrome. The festival and its association, were created 18 years ago – and this is its 10th edition, as it runs every other year – to allow an exchange between handicapped people (mostly autistic), and others who are not handicapped, and to bring them together on the stage and through other artistic events and activities – such as singing, writing, painting. The striking thing about Coutarel’s play was nicely put to words by a psychiatrist I spoke to afterwards: “In some ways, the people who are supposed to be handicapped look much more naturally alive in their role on the stage than those who are not.”

It was with a huge variety of emotions, on many different levels, that I watched this piece of 1 hour 20 minutes: On the one hand there was an education about an illness I had never heard of – Williams Syndrome – on another level was the actor on the stage before me who is afflicted with the illness, and on another was the actress, author and director whose brother inspired the show. But it truly did make me question the very nature of what it means to be “handicapped.” And in this way, the play is a challenging and worthwhile venture for the spectator. I left the theater – a 250-seat auditorium in the 3d arrondissement – feeling happily enlightened and uplifted about a part of our world that I knew so little about, and now will never see the same way again.

The play comes in the form of a sort of story-telling acted out by the three main characters, Coutarel, Auriane Vivien and Denis Taffanel. The latter is a dancer and choreographer, who plays the role of John Cyprian Phipps Williams, who was born 16 November 1922, a New Zealand cardiologist who discovered the syndrome in 1961, while he was still quite young. As part of the story, we learn also of the strange, eccentric life of this mysterious, multi-talented doctor who apparently disappeared for years and was presumed dead – until he made contact with the author of a book about the poet Janet Frame, asking that a relationship he had with the poet please not be mentioned in the book!

But the most intriguing performance of the story is that of Auriane Vivien, who is affected by the syndrome. And it is here where I was the most touched by my questions about what constitutes a handicap. Vivien, who has played the role several times over the last year elsewhere in France, was – as the psychiatrist noted – perfectly at home on the stage. In fact, had it not been for some of her physical characteristics matching those of the typical case of Williams Syndrome, it might have been impossible to know whether or not she was truly affected by this disease.

This was a theater of personal exploration, especially for Vivien and Coutarel, as the author wrote the piece in order to try to come to terms with her own brother’s illness. Williams Syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, and is characterized by certain physical attributes – notably the shape of the face and head – but also often by problems with visual spatial tasks, and, unfortunately, frequent heart problems. People with this genetic syndrome often have some moderate intellectual deficiencies as well, but other things are above average, for instance, they often possess a high musicality, often having absolute pitch. It is often marked also by an outgoing, friendly personality; which is something that is really touching in the circumstances as well.

The play takes a form somewhere between a recounting of personal history, self-questioning, demonstrations of what it is to have the syndrome, and even occasionally feels like a university lecture on the topic. But it was highly choreographed, and much of the physical interest comes from the contortions and movements of Taffanel, whose physical traits might actually lend themselves to questioning by anyone who did not know it, as to whether or not he himself suffered from the syndrome! Ultimately, the play’s main interest for me was, in fact, this questioning that it made me do about what exactly is that thing that we like to call “normal.”

* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.

A Not Theater Review (as a Q&A): James Thierrée and His One-Man (and Support Team) Show, Raoul

February 20, 2018
bradspurgeon

James Thierrée

James Thierrée

PARIS – I could have created some click-bait for those who do not know who James Thierrée is by adding in the headline of this blog post the words “grandson of Charlie Chaplin.”  But James Thierrée, who is the son of Chaplin’s daughter Victoria, made a name for himself long, long ago, and so it is debatable how much value the “Charlie Chaplin’s grandson” moniker still holds today. Thierrée, who grew up performing since he was a child in his parents’ circus, then trained all over the world (including at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan and the Harvard Theater School), and who is adept as a mime, dancer, acrobat, violinist, actor, director among other things, has clearly added several dimensions to the Chaplin identity that he inherited. Of course, the one thing he cannot really do anything about is that he looks almost a dead-ringer for his grandfather – especially the grey-haired version. This last week Thierrée has been putting on a show, called Raoul, at the 13éme Art theater in the place d’Italie in Paris, and Ornella Bonventre and I decided to check it out.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

My not-reviews are meant to be blog posts about me going to a show, reading a book, listening to music, eating a meal, and talking about it as a spectator – no “critic” attached. But this time, I decided to explore a slightly different version, and give most of the words over to Ornella, who, as an Italian actress, theater director, playwright and circus artist, I knew had a much better sense of what James Thierrée’s show was all about and could do a better job of talking about it than I can.

So we spoke about it together, and I have decided to run a little Q&A from that talk as my “not review.” Oh, and by the way, just for the sake of context it is important to know that despite our leaving home on time to get to the show by its 20:30 start time, we arrived at least 15 minutes late due to the tragic accident of someone falling – or jumping? – onto the metro tracks on Line 6 at the Quai de la Gare station and causing us to lose nearly half an hour in getting out of the metro and finding a taxi and then having to wait to be taken to seats in the 900-seat theater. As a result of me being placed in a handicapped person’s seating area, my view of the show was not great (would the view have been better from a wheelchair?  If not, this is scandalous.), and we missed the beginning of the show, and therefore perhaps some vital information on the game-plan of the spectacle.

The Q & A With Ornella Bonventre Answering Brad Spurgeon on James Thierrée’s Raoul

Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning

Ornella Bonventre & Brad Spurgeon Clowning

Question to Ornella from Brad. You were telling me that you enjoyed some of the technical aspects of the show, like the puppets but also James Thierrée’s physical movements. Why?

Answer from Ornella. I enjoyed the entire show from a technical point of view. I was very, very surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything. I wasn’t expecting a comical show, I wasn’t expecting a mime show, I wasn’t expecting him to be doing Charlie Chaplin. I was just expecting something very good – and in fact it was very good. I enjoyed the techniques he used as a director, because the structure of the show was based on principles that I am trying to use as a theater director too. For example, the puppet theater technique, or the use of the lights, the use of the space, the different levels of height he used on the stage throughout.

And technically, yes, the quality of his physical movements was amazing as well. He is not just a mime, he is an acrobat and a dancer. It is clear that he studied many different techniques. It was multidisciplinary. And, in fact, this is the same tendency that I saw at the circus festival we went to a couple of weeks ago, the Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain. Each artist is not just specialized in his own discipline but is now multidisciplinary.

And I think this is something that James Thierrée had to face as the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin. He cannot just repeat what Charlie Chaplin did. He has to be something else, and probably something more and different and unique in his own way.

Q. What about the mixing of the huge puppets he used occasionally as well, the use of the giant stage set, and trapeze-like things, etc.?

A. I loved that because everything was transformed. Each object had its own life and was transformed into something else. And that’s very magical. And it is always the goal in my theater to obtain this result as well. And they were doing it with very traditional techniques. The puppets were built in a very simple way. And they were moved by people, not with machines, so there was nothing extraordinarily technical, and the materials also were simple, poor materials – like papier maché, simple cloths, etc.

Q. You mentioned something to me also about how this show, and the other one we saw, with Julien Cottereau, both depended largely on the use of sound.

A. Yes. I loved the use of sound in this show, the use of the soundtracks and the noises. And I think that they were necessary because they were also covering the noises of all of the huge machines that were moving up and down on the stage, the things from the floor to the ceiling, and the huge puppets. So the soundtrack was necessary to cover these sounds so that the audience would not be distracted and removed from the spell of the show by the unintended noises. It was very well done.

Q. For me the biggest problem was that I was waiting for, or expecting, a kind of storyline that I couldn’t find. So it was difficult for me to hitch in to the narrative. Was that something you found difficult too?

James Thierrée aloft in Raoul

James Thierrée aloft in Raoul

A. Yes, there was no story…or possibly because we arrived late and we weren’t able to see the beginning of the show, and that might have helped to follow the story more. But even so, for me the story was: “Welcome to a magical world!” A world made of little things in which the objects have their own life, and the objects themselves were actors on the stage. Strange things were happening around this poor character who was reacting to what was happening around him. And he was very tender; he was the typical character of the clown, with the stupefaction, the wonderment about everything; every little thing became something extraordinary. This is the principle of the work that we saw. And it is something that I really adore – the magic of little things.

Q. That makes me think of the fact that I felt the theater was too big for the show! 900 seats!  I had the worst seat I ever had in a theater (for the maximum price of 45 euros), with two people right in front of me on the same level, and I could not see clearly the area where Thierrée performed most of the show. It was difficult for me to see the little things and small movements. So I felt I was missing a lot. How was your seat just beside me?

A. My vision was good. It is true that probably the theater was very, very big, but fortunately for Thierrée it was full. It was sold out. And I think that’s why it’s necessary to have a very big theater; in order to contain all of his fans, the whole audience that he brings. It’s true that perhaps this show can work better in a smaller theater, but the reason for such a big theater I think is simply to contain the audience he brings.

But, even so, I was able to follow the details. As I said before, every theater show is made of the details – the movements even of the eyes – and usually you are able to see those things even if you are far away from the stage. Because that’s it, this is theater. The quality is in the details, and even if you are not really able to see clearly the details they touch you in any case.

Q. What did you see that I did not see since I am not an expert on mime, on movement, on dance? Can you tell me what you saw in his skills, in his techniques, that was so exciting for you and that held your attention?

A. Perfection. I never saw such a high quality of movement in all the senses. His movements were so fluid, so organic and so true – above all organic and fluid and it had a high, high quality that I’ve never seen before.

Q. What kind of movements are you talking about in particular?

A. In general. The whole show is based on his movements. There is no wind on stage, for example, but it exists, a very strong wind blowing at 100 kph because you see his body that is acting as if the wind is there. So he is creating a world with his body, just with his body. He is acting as if the wind is there, so for me, the wind was there. I was believing in that.

Thierrée dancing

Thierrée dancing


Q. Some of the funniest, most successful parts were the simplest, most slapstick things, I felt. Like him pouring water into a cup that it is bottomless, and then when he tries to drink it, there is no water in the cup. It’s a gag. It’s an old joke. But for me it was a moment I could really relate to and identify with.

A. Me too. Welcome to the magical world of the little things. It’s amazing how he had such beautiful tricks and big machines that carry him up and around the stage, but what is working best are those little things. In fact, you asked me about the quality of his movements, and the quality of his actions, and I told you it is amazing. I never saw such perfection. Why? Because I always saw those tricks – the water, or the wind or the body acting in a certain way, mime stuff – because I grew up in circus, in theater, and to me this is my daily life. So I appreciated those little things because they were so well done, they were magical.

Q. So he did old gags in a fabulous way.

A. Yes.

Q. What about the advantage or disadvantage of being Charlie Chalplin’s grandson? I think that part of the reason the theater was full was because everyone knows this is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. But also that can be a negative thing too because you are being compared to Charlie Chaplin, to your grandfather. How do you see this aspect of his identity?

A. I think it is already difficult for everyone to find their own identity. To find our identity is a battle. And so, I think that for him, as for all people who are the “son of,” “grandchild of” or the “daughters of” famous and loved personalities, it is very, very difficult. I think it is a weapon that can turn against you easily if you are not good enough to demonstrate to the audience that you are really unique and great in your own way. So at the beginning it can be something that brings an audience, but if you are not good enough this is also something that can destroy you forever. And I don’t think the theater was full because he is the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, because he has been on the stage for many years. So probably in the beginning the theaters were full because he was the grandchild of Charlie Chaplin, but today if he wasn’t good enough the theater wouldn’t be full.

Q. Were there areas that disappointed you?

A. I don’t know if “disappointed” is the right word. But one flat point was the story. It is true. I don’t know if it was because we missed the beginning or not. Another thing, and I asked myself this: “Why are you not doing this guy??!” It was a moment when the house lights were turned on over the audience and he stared at us, and I thought, “My God, use this! Now you see us, and you are trying to interact with us. But do this for real. Come to us and use this other part of the space.” In fact, he did do that, but just one time. When he entered from the door and walked directly in front of us. But it was just one time, and it was so quick. Just a moment like that! (Ornella snaps her fingers.) So not disappointment, but…it could have been more.

And also, I think this show was all about teamwork, and I would have loved to see more of the other participants. As well as their names on the posters, etc., being more recognized for their contribution.

But the rhythm of the show was amazing. Because it was a very long show. And without a structured story. So it is difficult to keep an audience seated down like that for 1 hour and 40 minutes. So the rhythm was amazing.

And the meta-theater aspect was interesting too. To show the show being made was amazing.

Q. You mean when they were fake hiding the members of the cast and crew with screens as they came out to set up the props, pretending that they were not there, etc.? But much of the show was “meta” stuff. It is external appreciation of what was being done, as opposed to really entering into the character, no? How much were you involved personally in the character?

A. I can honestly say to you that I was moved. As I am moved every time that I work with Claudio Madia in Milan and he really becomes a child, and the tenderness, and the innocence comes out….  At that moment I am completely with the character and I am moved. Because the theme of the innocence of childhood is personally something that touches me a lot. Was I with the character? Yes.

Q. We are living in a world where anything is technically possible in film, on the internet, in YouTube, and here is James Thierrée’s show with traditional gags, the flesh-and-blood live performance of an individual, and nothing that you can see in the way of the technological achievements that even a knowledgeable home video editor can do. What place does a show like this have in today’s world where our senses have been numbed by anything being visually possible on YouTube?

A. I think, honestly, that shows like this, and not even just this kind in particular, but the theater in general has a very important place in our contemporary world. I really believe that it is the future of this world. Theater is a meeting. But for real it is a meeting. It is a meeting between the audience and the actors and it is a meeting between the daily life of the audience and the life of the show, of the stories of the show. It is a meeting between the audience and the audience. It is work that you do in a team. When you are working in a show you are not alone. Your show depends on other people. So theater is a meeting, and it is made by people for people. And it is the future. And its place in our contemporary world is very, very important. Wherever there are two people in the same spot that want to listen to each other, there is theater. It is up to theater today to save human relationships and humanity.

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